Our Own Reality- Exodus 8:25, 28, 30-32

And Pharaoh called for Moses and for Aaron, and said, Go ye, sacrifice to your God in the land.
Only ye shall not go very far away: entreat for me.
And Moses went out from Pharaoh, and entreated the Lord.
And the Lord did according to the word of Moses; and he removed the swarms of flies from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people; there remained not one.
And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go.

COMMENTARY

And Pharaoh called for Moses and for Aaron, and said, Go ye, sacrifice to your God in the land.
And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go.

Pharaoh was a man who constantly bounced between the fear of God and an insistence to have his own way. When Moses first demanded that Pharaoh let the Israelites go he countered by having his own priests replicate the miracles being shown to him. Rather than accept the sovereignty of Jehovah, he was able to still rely on his own gods.
But then things began to escalate. Plagues arose that his priests could not counter nor reproduce. Having no alternative, he was forced to accept the reality that the Hebrew God was the only one who could be entreated for relief. And so he relented, in order that he could get the reprieve he desired.
But though he had come to accept a new reality in his mind, he was not converted to it in his heart. Rather he tested the Lord’s patience by recanting his promises, refusing to let the Israelites go, even after he had said that they could.
Yesterday we considered how we can be reluctant to fully embrace the reality that is staring us right in the face. Pharaoh is an excellent example of this. Like him, sometimes we try to have our cake and eat it, too. We point to God’s reality with one hand, but also hold to our own reality with the other. Of course things didn’t work out very well for Pharaoh when he tried this, and it won’t work for us either.

Our Own Reality- Alma 30:17, Helaman 4:13

And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.

And because of this their great wickedness, and their boastings in their own strength, they were left in their own strength; therefore they did not prosper, but were afflicted and smitten, and driven before the Lamanites, until they had lost possession of almost all their lands.

COMMENTARY

But every man fared prospered according to his genius, conquered according to his strength
And because of their boastings in their own strength, they were left in their own strength
To the ancient Nephites a false prophet came, denying the existence of Christ, and teaching the people that reliance upon God was foolhardy. Korihor taught that each person had only him- or herself to depend on. If you were to succeed or fail was entirely up to you, and you alone.
As the people came to embrace this philosophy, it actually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having rejected God, they became Godless. Having insisted upon relying on their own strength only, they were left to their own strength only. Thus, in a sense they were absolutely right in their beliefs. By denying the existence of God, they ensured that in essence He would not exist (for them).
Of course we cannot change eternal truths by our opinions, we do not have that power. But we do have power over the individual experience of our lives. We have the ability to invite or reject divine intervention. We have the ability to put up or break down walls. We can make our portion of the world a place that is hopeful and blessed, or we can make it into a place that is cynical and isolated. Given that we have this power, we ought to take great care in which reality we are electing for ourselves.

The Doing Muscle- Summary

We all have wished that we more consistent at doing the things that we know we should. If each of us was able to be our best self each day, the world would already be a divine place to live. Indeed, one might argue that the best thing any of us can do to right the greater wrongs of the world, is to simply improve our own selves instead. How can we help the world live by the principles that we think are important, if we’re not even fully living them ourselves?

Doing this study was a great help to me. It helped me to understand why it is so hard for me to consistently be my best self and what I can do to be more successful. It also has helped me to be more patient with my own imperfections.

Not only have I better understood these principles by conducting this study, I would say that I have seen my behavior improve as a result. By implementing these principles and practices in my life I have found I am more successful at doing the things I already know I should be doing. Let’s take a look at what some of the principles and practices are.

The Self-Improvement Hierarchy

One truth that stood out to me was the need to put first things first. Forming ourselves into our best self is a very monumental undertaking, not unlike trying to erect a great building. And as when trying to erect a great building, it is absolutely necessary to begin with a solid foundation. One might stack toothpicks up very high for a brief moment, and for that brief moment it might appear quite impressive, but sooner or later a tower of toothpicks is destined to fall. So too with heroic efforts to be morally perfect one day, only to then binge on all of one’s indulgences the next.
Jesus, himself, taught the importance of establishing a solid foundation before building upwards. He spoke of storms of life that will try to blow down our progress, and how they will succeed unless we are rooted on something sure.
So before we try to tick off our personal-perfection-checklist we need to get down into the basement and see what the conditions are like. Are we prone to addictions? Do we have unconfessed sins adding unnecessary strain? Are we desecrating our homes and bodies (our temples) with things that degrade the soul? Are we trying to found our success on our own strength only? If the answer to any of these is yes, then we’re never going to make any long-term progress. We need to establish a far better foundation first, and only then we can start building in earnest.
Matthew 5:23-24- Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Matthew 7:26-27- And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

Failure is Part of the Process

Of course, even after we’ve got our foundation taken care of, that doesn’t mean the act of building ourselves higher is an easy process. Even those that have bridled their appetites and established a core of strength still make mistakes, still doing things that they know they shouldn’t, still leave undone that which their conscience tells them they should do.
And as we look at the scriptural narrative it has always been this way. At the height of their work the prophets and apostles were still making mistakes. Moses struck the rock, Peter was reluctant to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, Paul got into heated disagreements with his fellow missionaries. Yet none of them are defined by their failures, because they continued trying to do right in spite of them.
If we try and fail and then give up, then yes, that will be the final, defining note in our journey. But if we try and fail and retry, then it is the “retry” which defines our legacy instead. It isn’t about reaching the full destination in this life, it’s about staying on the road.
Galatians 6:9- And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
Philippians 3:12, 14- Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after.
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

Divine Help is Necessary

The final principle I realized was that, ironically, that which we call “self-improvement” is most likely to fail when it is performed only by the self. I believe many of us have a personal pride, and want to make ourselves into the ideal man or woman without any help from anyone else. Or perhaps we might feel that humbly relying on God is only meant for that first step, the one where we were trying to sort out our foundation, overcome our addictions, and confess our major sins. We might feel that God needs to save us, but once He has, now it is all on us to make something beautiful out of the new life we have been given.
But that simply isn’t the case. The steps that take us from sinners to the repentant turn out to be the exact same steps to take us from the repentant into saints. Just as much as we needed to plead with God to sponge away our guilt and shame, we again need to plead with Him to give us the strength to become more like Him. It is a dangerous journey before us, and we were never meant to take it alone. This has to be a partnership, for that it is the will only it will ever succeed.
Isaiah 40:31- But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Isaiah 41:10- Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.

The Doing Muscle- 1 Corinthians 6:19, Matthew 21:13

What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?

And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

COMMENTARY

Know ye not that your body is the temple, which ye have of God?
My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
When I have sought to improve my well-being the thought has often occurred to me that I ought to consider the temples in my life, and whether they are places of sanctity. Is my house a shrine to God, or a place where His spirit would be offended to dwell? Is my room a place of focus, or a place of distraction? Is my body well cared for and nourished, or is it deprived of its basic needs?
Sometimes having the strength for self-improvement requires looking inward and outward. Maybe we’re making things harder on ourselves by not cultivating an environment where the spirit can thrive. The Holy Ghost is meant to bring to us the mind and will of God, meaning that when it is present our thoughts and desires are more easily aligned to the virtues we are trying to emulate. In other words, having a sacred space invites the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and having the companionship of the Holy Ghost just makes doing the good things easier.

The Doing Muscle- 1 Corinthians 10:13, Matthew 6:33

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

COMMENTARY

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man
If there is anything that keeps us from doing the things we want to do, it probably exists under the umbrella of temptation. Temptation to go back to our old ways, temptation to procrastinate, temptation to just plain be lazy. If it weren’t for friction we would all do exactly what we intended to do, and temptation is the greatest source of friction out there.

But God is faithful, who will with the temptation also make a way to escape
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness
But fortunately for us, temptation has its cure. It’s easy to think that self-improvement can only be done by–well–the self. We assume that it is our personal cross to bear, unable to receive any outside help. However this isn’t the case. A change of heart does require effort from us, but it also requires a miracle from God.
And so the guidance in these verses is to seek the kingdom of God first. We should build up our connection to him, learn how hear His voice, learn how to invoke His blessings in our lives. If we build on that foundation first then we can work with Him on every other element of self-improvement together.

The Doing Muscle- Isaiah 40:31, Isaiah 41:10

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.

COMMENTARY

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength
For I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee
Yesterday I spoke of our moral resolve as a muscle, and the need to strengthen it without trying to overwhelm it. It is fine to acknowledge that we have limits and temper our efforts according to them.
But…we also need to pair this prudence with a faith in miracles. God has promised to give us strength beyond our own, the ability to stand against storms that we simply do not have the power to face ourselves. It is possible to both set realistic goals for one’s growth, and still leave the door open for divine intervention.
In my own path of addiction recovery, I took care to set manageable, attainable goals for myself. I did not try to muster up the strength for perfection, only to keep my commitments for each new day. And while in the process of taking these small steps by my own power, I found myself being swept forward by the grace of God to beyond what my own efforts could accomplish. My mind and heart healed in degrees that made no sense. I found a restoration of the soul that I had not even come close to earning.
So it can be with all practices of self-improvement. You do what you can do, and you let God do what He can do.

For Our Own Good- Matthew 13:44-46

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

COMMENTARY

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure in a field
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant seeking goodly pearls

I concluded my last post with a casual reference to the parable of the pearl of great price. The more I think about it, the more that parable is really quite fitting for this topic of dealing with commandments that we don’t understand.
The merchant finding the pearl of great price is us discovering the true value of the gospel. It is the moment where it really clicks in us, where ideas like grace and healing go from just being words to being very real hopes and needs.

Which when a man hath found, he selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it
And when that message does click in our hearts, then suddenly we will surrender every other ideology or philosophy we held previous to that moment, if it means that we can obtain the promises of the gospel.
Perhaps we had certain ideas of the way the world worked, ideas that were not compatible with the principles of the gospel. We let them go, it just doesn’t matter. Perhaps we scoffed at certain commandments, perhaps we still don’t understand them in their entirety. We adopt them anyway, it just doesn’t matter.
Because like the man buying the field and the merchant purchasing the pearl, once we feel that need for God in our lives, we’ll do whatever it takes to be near Him.

For Our Own Good- Exodus 3:16-17, 4:10

Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt:
And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanite, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.
And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.

COMMENTARY

Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The Lord God will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanite
And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue
Yesterday we spoke of how each of us requires a “mighty change of heart” in our lives. I believe that many would say they agree with that statement, but then specify that for them it is a cosmetic change only, not a structural one. Meaning we most often feel that the underlying desires of our heart are already perfect, and we just need to follow them better. We see our actions as flawed, but our paradigms as perfect,
However, as we see in this scripture, that wasn’t the case with Moses. He was already a good and honest man whom the Lord was willing to reveal Himself to, yet Moses still needed to change his image of what was right in order to keep the commandment that God was giving to him.
Similarly, Sariah was a good and faithful woman whose heart wasn’t ready to receive a child, and Abraham’s heart wasn’t ready to receive the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Peter needed an intervention to consider the Gentiles as worthy of receiving the gospel. Jonah wanted the city of Nineveh to be burned, contrary to the Lord’s will. These were all good people, yet people who still needed to change.
God does not only intend to change the hearts of the wicked and sinful, but even of the righteous. His intention is not to make us into the best people that we can imagine, but even into people that we have never before considered.

The Need for Law- 1 Timothy 2:5, Ephesians 2:13-15

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;

But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.
For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us;
Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;

COMMENTARY

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus
We have considered how Jesus Christ came between humanity and the damning consequences of our laws to offer a mediation. Having fulfilled all of the requirements of mortal and divine law, one can only assume that Jesus was free to make the terms of his new law be whatever he wished.
If it had been his intention to still surrender us to the torment of damnation, who could deny that he had the right? Or if it had been his intention to liberally grant salvation to everyone regardless of their behavior, again who could deny that he had the right? Or if his intention had been anywhere in between, who could question it?
Obviously not all of these possibilities can be true, but the point is that Jesus was free to set his own terms, and whatever terms he chose, they would become our new immutable law if we chose it. Whatever he thinks it is that we need to do to achieve salvation, that is what we need to do.

He hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us
For to make in himself of twain one new man

So what is it that Jesus wants to do? Does he want to save us all? Well yes, of course, but that is not all. As we see in these verses from Ephesians, Jesus wants to bridge the gap between us and God. He wants to break the wall between frailty and perfection, and teach us flawed souls the way to be pure. He wants to make new men and women out of us, so that we do not only live in heaven, but belong in heaven.
And as we review the terms that Christ did ultimately choose for his law, we will see that they were selected specifically for their effect of changing sinful people into something holy.

The Need for Law- The Three Laws

I’ve spent these last few posts discussing a different laws, their origins and their destinations, and it has been a pretty organic, free-flowing conversation. And while everything I wrote made sense in my own head, I imagine it might have been a bit confusing to follow. Having muddled out all the details for myself, I think it would now be worthwhile to spell things out more clearly.

These are the three different laws that govern our lives as I understand them. The scriptural references to support them are included throughout my previous posts. It is, of course, entirely possible that I am misaligned in some way though. Spiritual study, after all, is a process of constant refinement.

Mortal Law

What I mean by mortal law is the balance of nature that rules our world. These are the purely physical forces that define gravity, magnetism, chemical and nuclear reaction, and all the other natural interactions that make our universe the way that it is. These laws are observable with our physical senses, and can be measured and studied. They are consistent and reliable, as every universal law is.

These laws provide wonderful benefits to us. They allow the matter of our planet to have coalesced into a singular body, they keep it moving in a steady orbit, they retain a breathable atmosphere around us, and they also maintain every other requirement to make our lives possible.

These laws are fair in that they apply equally and universally to all. However they give no assurances for social, moral, or karmic justice. That is entirely outside of their domain. And so the lazy might prosper and the industrious come to ruin. The guilty might be exonerated and the innocent condemned. The unhealthy might survive and the healthy die young.

But whether rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, good or evil, wise or foolish…the mortal law brings all to the same conclusion. Death, entropy, eternal silence. Under this law we all share the common destiny of ceasing all existence forever.

Divine Law

Divine law is where the influence of God enters the mortal realm. As such, it directly addresses the limitations of the mortal law. While the wicked may still prosper under the worldly domain, divine law now requires that they will be stung in their conscience. While the pure-hearted may still die young, divine law assures that they can pass in peace.

To put it simply, where mortal law governs our bodies, divine law’s domain is that of the spirit and soul. And just as how mortal law applies the same rules to each body equally, divine law weighs on each spirit equally, too. No good deed goes without a sense of fulfillment, no evil deed goes without a stinging of the conscience.

And where mortal law consigns us all to the grave, divine law picks us up from that one destiny and turns it into two. It ushers the immortal spirit either into a paradise or into a hell, depending on whether its precepts and commandments were obeyed or not. The problem here is that we, given our fallen nature, have each disobeyed the commandments of divine law, and thus are destined for hell.

Christ’s Law

And here we see the need for one more law. From mortal law our bodies are destined to die, and from divine law are spirits are destined to hell. The final act of everyone’s story is an inescapable tragedy.

Christ’s purpose is to answer the demands of both laws and to offer us a third in their place. He accomplishes this in three steps.

First, he adopts us as his children. To everyone that is willing, he takes us under his wing, and makes himself culpable for our errors, and us worthy of his virtues. Any punishment we receive he may take for us, and any reward he receives he may give to us.

Second, he pays for our crimes. He died to the mortal law and he was condemned by divine law. In Gethsemane he suffered the pain of a soul damned to hell. On Calvary he suffered the death of his body.

Third, he rises above his own death and condemnation, so that he can continue as our adoptive father, able to govern us and give grace as he sees fit.

Unlike the first two laws, this third one from Christ is entirely optional. We may refuse it if we wish. That is fine, we will simply remain under the purview of divine law, still consigned to hell. On the other hand, we may accept his law, and as a result our destination can be changed to life and paradise. He resurrects our bodies back from the grave, and he rescues our spirits from the clutches of hell*.

Of course accepting his law now means living that law’s precepts and commandments. Unlike divine law, those commandments are not total perfection, but they do expect particular behavior from us. The good news is that they are behaviors which we actually can satisfy. We will begin examining exactly what they are with the next post.

*Because the mortal law was not chosen by us, but by our first parents Adam and Eve, Christ provides an escape from it for everyone. Even those that reject Christ’s law will have the benefit of resurrection. This is only fair.
Our individual failure to fulfill divine law, however, is on our own heads, and so reclamation from hell is dependent on whether we accept Christ’s law or not.